French Harpist Welcomes Spring to Wales

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Britten, Fauré, Pécou, Scarlatti, Rossini-Bochsa: Maureen Thiébaut (harp), Weston Gallery, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 30.4.2013. (GPu)

Britten, Suite for Harp in c major, Op.83
Fauré, Impromptu for Harp in D flat major, Op. 86
Pécou, Harpe de Jade
Scarlatti, Sonata in G major, K.208
Rossini-Bochsa, Rondeau on the trio Zitti Zitti (from Rossini’s Barber of Seville)

On what was one of the first spring days of the year (and one begins to fear, one of the last too), this charming recital by the young French harpist Maureen Thiébaut was enough to make Cardiff feel like Paris in the Springtime. Thiébaut won first prize at the Concours International de Harpe de la Cité des Arts de Paris in 2011 and currently studies with Isabelle Moretti at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Paris. She is already an assured and accomplished soloist, with a pleasant and confident stage manner. Her recital was given in the intimate space of the Weston Gallery in one of the older buildings of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

She began with Benjamin Britten’s Suite for Harp, written in 1969. Always fond of the harp, Britten had given the instrument a prominent place in the three church parables written a few years earlier. One suspects he was particularly happy to respond to Osian Ellis’s request for a solo piece. And a fine piece he produced. It can be played primarily as a display piece, full as it is of glissandis, arpeggios and glittering runs. But there is more to it than simply the opportunity for the performer to display their virtuosity. In the ‘Toccata’ which forms the second of its five movements, the complexity of the interchanging voices produces some striking effects, and Thiébaut presented that complexity with pleasing clarity. The third movement is headed ‘Nocturne’ and admirers of Britten’s music know to expect good things when night and nocturnal atmospheres are his subject. And this piece fulfils such expectations. There are some slightly sinister passages and the whole effect is hauntingly beautiful, with its elegant melody ornamented with increasing elaboration as the movement develops. It was presumably as a nod to Osian Ellis, and to the special Welsh affinity with harp more widely, that Britten used a Welsh theme for his fifth and final movement ‘Hymn’. The tune is St. Denio, a traditional Welsh ballad tune widely known in the early nineteenth century, which was first published as a hymn tune in John Roberts’s Caniadau y Cyssegr (Hymns of the Sanctuary) in 1839. Since the title (St. Denio) refers to St. Denis, the patron saint of France, there was a relevance both geographical (given that we were in the capital of Wales) and personal (insofar as the harpist was French) on this particular occasion. Britten gives us his variations on the theme (the second is particularly fine), before he states the theme explicitly (to which Walter C. Smith wrote familiar words – “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” – in his Hymns of Christ and the Christ ian Life of 1876. Thiébaut’s playing, though it relished detail on occasion, had a strong architectural sense. After a few slight lapses in the opening movement, this was a clear-sighted, yet poetic performance.

The same could be said of her performance of Fauré’s Impromptu for Harp. Written in 1904 for the harp competition of the Paris Conservatoire, the piece displays many signs of its origins in the ways in which it invites (perhaps one should say requires) the performer to cope with a series of technical challenges. But there is some musical substance here, too. After the bold opening chords, there follow a romantically dreamy melody and later a series of contrasts between passages at opposite ends of the instrument’s register, between glittering brightness and darker music. Thiébaut (unsurprisingly) proved well able to handle the technical difficulties and equally well-equipped to elicit its poetry and its sense of the improvisatory.

Thierry Pécou’s Harpe de Jade is another French test piece, of much later date, being written for the 2011 Concours International de Harpe de la Cite des Arts de Paris which Maureen Thiébaut won. Given that jade was “inextricably at the core of Chinese civilization and played an essential role in its self-definition as one of its constituent, founding elements” (Filippo Salviati, Radiant Stones: Archaic Chinese Jades, 2000), perhaps it wasn’t just my own imagination that made me hear, in the sound world of Pécou’s composition, echoes of the guqin, the ancient seven stringed Chinese zither. Full of lambent radiance, by turns mildly percussive and winningly delicate, with many changes of pace and rhythm, this was a rewarding tone poem for harp, beautifully played.

Scarlatti’s sonatas for harpsichord have proved very amenable to transcription for other instruments and it is not surprising that they (or at least some of them) should prove so well suited to another plucked instrument, the harp. The one that Maureen Thiébaut chose to include in her recital, K.208, was described by Sacheverell Sitwell (a great Scarlatti enthusiast) as “poignant, and a good deal more than merely poignant” (in Southern Baroque Revisited, 1967); in his study of the composer, Ralph Kirkpatrick observed of this sonata ( I quote from the 1983 printing of Kirkpatrick’s book) that it was “perhaps … Scarlatti’s impression of the vocal arabesques spun over random guitar chords in long arcades of extended breath … This is courtly flamenco music, rendered elegant and suitable for the confines of the royal palace”. Thiébaut’s reading of this sonata, both tender and rhythmically exciting, was properly elegant and ‘courtly’, with a strong sense of the dance. I wish, indeed, that she had been able to treat us to more Scarlatti.

Maureen Thiébaut ended her programme with a piece by the French composer and harpist Robert Nicholas Charles Bochsa (1789-1836). He led what is sometimes euphemistically described as a “colourful” life, which is to grant him more indulgence than he probably deserved. After studies at the Paris conservatoire, he met with early success both as an instrumentalist (he became harpist to Napoleon) and as a composer (he wrote several works for the Opera Comique. In 1817, however, he fled France, shortly before being arrested on charges of fraud. He was sentenced, in his absence, to twelve years imprisonment. He made his way, after various adventures, to London where, in 1822 he became Professor of Harp at the Royal Academy of Music. He was dismissed from this post in 1827. Thereafter he worked as a touring musician, but continued to display his talent for getting into hot water. In 1839, after a spell as accompanist to the singer Anna Bishop (wife of the composer Henry Bishop), accompanist and singer ran away together. The rest of his life was spent touring and working in many countries and it was in sydney, Australia that he eventually died. Such a life is the stuff of picaresque fiction or, indeed, comic opera – so there is aptness in the fact that one of Bochsa’s most enduring works should be his Rondeau on Rossini’s terzetto (sung by Rosina, the Count and Figaro) in Act Two of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Bochsa had experience of secretive flights and escapes and perhaps that was part of what attracted him to this passage in Rossini’s opera. His treatment of the music captures much of the mood of the original and was played with an appropriate sense of mischief – though, just as appropriately, not without a sense of passion – by Maureen Thiébaut, rounding off perfectly a lovely musical welcome to Spring.

Glyn Pursglove